Amgueddfa Blog: Cadwraeth

Amgueddfa Cymru helped direct me to a career in heritage by drawing my attention to the possibility of a career in museums at a “career speed dating” event. I would go on to volunteer with National Museum Cardiff, whilst studying.

Volunteering as part of the museum’s preventive conservation team, we carried out a wide range of tasks from repackaging lichen, to carefully carrying jade, cleaning paintings currently on display all the while talking to the public about the importance of preventive conservation and promoting part of the Museum traditionally shielded from view. It could be just a few people or what seemed like hundreds of school children, every day brought a different experience.

Volunteering brought the reality of the sector and a chance to learn new skills and experiences which were invaluable to my understanding of what museums are and who they are for; fulfilling my personal reasons for volunteering.

The volunteer programme was flexible, reflecting my own needs not just its own. The programme allowed me to develop as I wanted and when it came time to end my time volunteering with Amgueddfa Cymru it was natural. I had succeeded in what I wanted to achieve, and I was supported to continue my development beyond the museum, not expected to stay when it was no longer practical.

I will always remember having the opportunity to be part of the preventive conservation team, I am sure the team will not forget my Elmer the Elephant style shirt, immortalised in many presentation slides and pull up banners (see photos). I now work for the Cynon Valley Museum as a Museum Co-ordinator and advocate for museums through EMP Wales (Emerging Museum Professionals) and FOH. 

Follow me on twitter: @TregaskesW @FoHMuseums @EMPCymru @cynonvalleymus

What do you do if you have minerals in your collection that have a tendency to react chemically? For our research student Kathryn Royce this means: growing minerals from a super saturated solution, then sticking the crystals in a climate chamber for a few weeks and forcing them to dehydrate.

Yes, you read right, some minerals can dehydrate. There is a good number of mineral species which are poly-hydrated, meaning, minerals that contain water molecules as part of their crystal structure. Many of these mineral species can, under certain conditions, lose some of these water molecules. This process actually turns the mineral into a different mineral – just one with a lower hydration status.

For example, the mineral melanterite (FeSO4 · 7H2O), which has 7 water molecules, may lose some water molecules if kept at a relative humidity below 57%. The resultant products include either the mineral siderotil (same chemical formula but only 5 water molecules) or rozenite (4 water molecules). In the context of wanting to preserve melanterite in a museum collection, the dehydration products siderotil and rozenite, whilst minerals in their own right, would be classed as deterioration products and, hence, their appearance be undesirable.

To understand this process, and define how we would characterise the concept of ‘damage’ to mineral specimens, Kathryn is now analysing the deterioration products using a combination of different analytical techniques, including X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy, Raman spectroscopy and computerised tomography scanning. The results will help us develop a methodology for long-term monitoring of geological collections in museums and improve the care of such collections in museums.

This research is being undertaken at National Museum Cardiff in collaboration with the School of Geography and Environment at University of Oxford and the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA), and kindly supported by OR3D, BSRIA, the Barbara Whatmore Charitable Trust, the National Conservation Service, and the Pilgrim Trust.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter

One of the best reasons for housing heritage collections inside buildings is that the building keeps the weather out. Paintings, fossils, books and skeletons are best kept dry, and walls and roofs protect our collections (as well as staff and visitors) from the elements.

In addition, many of the objects in our collections also need specific temperature and humidity ranges to prevent them from suffering damage. Too high a humidity can cause swelling of wood, for example, initiating cracks in objects, or, if humidity gets even higher, mould growth. Therefore, National Museum Cardiff has a complicated air conditioning system. This system is more than 40 years old and has been maintenance-intensive and inefficient for some time.

We are happy to report that, after several years of planning, we have just completed the installation of new chillers and humidifiers at National Museum Cardiff. The purpose of chillers in the museum is to provide cold water – for lowering the temperature of galleries and stores in the summer, and for dehumidifying stores and galleries if there is too much moisture in the air. Humidifiers achieve the opposite effect: they increase humidity in stores and galleries if it is too low. Low humidity is usually a problem during the winter months – you may have experienced your skin drying out at home when you have the heating on in winter. To prevent our collections drying out we cannot apply skin cream; instead, we maintain a minimum level of humidity in stores and galleries.

The chillers and humidifiers have been commissioned now, and are working well. They have already proved that the control of our indoor environments is better than it was before. A very positive side effect of the new technologies is that they are much more efficient than the old equipment. In fact, they are so efficient that we are anticipating to shave almost 50% off our annual electricity bill for National Museum Cardiff, saving the planet more than 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road, or the average energy a family home uses in 38 years.

By investing in such new technologies, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales continues to ensure the safe storage and display of the nation’s heritage collections, whilst at the same time making a massive contribution towards the National Assembly’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (Environment Wales Act 2016).

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

 

Back in 1998, long before I started my current job as Senior Textile Conservator at St Fagans National Museum of History, I spent two work experience placements at the museum, helping my predecessor Clare Stoughton-Harris.  I had just started on my 3-year post-grad course in Textile Conservation the previous year.  The course was based in apartments within Hampton Court Palace.  I saw an ad for a placement at St Fagans on the Centre’s noticeboard and decided to apply. A few weeks later, I found myself driving over to Cardiff to start my placement.

My first stint was for 3 weeks, over the Easter Holidays.  The work mainly consisted of preparing St Fagans castle for re-opening after refurbishment, so it involved a lot of surface cleaning, but we also got around to wet cleaning a carpet.  The image shows Clare sponging the carpet in the detergent bath in the studio. 

When I came back in the summer, my project was to improve the storage conditions of the shoe collection.  Most shoes were stored on open shelving, with several pairs stacked on top of each other.  Some were not wrapped at all and were gathering dust, and others were wrapped in yellowed newspaper as you can see in the 2 pictures below.  That’s me, unwrapping and examining some children’s shoes!

As they were, the shoes were also very inaccessible as it was impossible to know which pair was wrapped in each bundle of tissue paper.  So I remember assembling endless flat pack boxes and re-packing the shoes… so here they were in their lovely new storage boxes:

Once the contents of the Old Costume Store moved into the Collection Centre at St Fagans in 2008, the project was improved upon by adding thumbnail images of each pair, clearly attached to the outside of the box, so here they are in their current configuration!

From 1998, it took another 7 years, and jobs with the National Trust, in Norfolk, a private studio in Dublin and 2 years at the British Museum before I was became the Senior Textile Conservator at Amgueddfa Cymru. Now I have the occasional pleasure of overseeing students myself and can return the favour of giving them the chance to expand their experience and help them along their career path!

 

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University

I’m Caitlin, an MSc Conservation Practice student from Cardiff University and I have just finished my summer placement at National Museum Cardiff. I’ve been working with conservator Julian Carter on the natural history collections, with the last five weeks focused on preparations for the museum’s summer exhibition, Snakes!

The first week saw me elbow deep in jars full of snakes, as we worked our way through getting 32 fluid preserved specimens ready for display. Although the snakes had already undergone previous treatment, many were very old and in need of attention. After checking the jars’ condition, we added or replaced conservation fluid as required.

Many snakes needed to be rehomed in new jars. Some preservationists use wires or mountings, but we chose to follow the natural shape of the snake and its flexibility to guide its positioning within the jar. My favourite of the specimens was a grass snake that had been preserved in the act of eating a toad (with one leg dangling from its mouth...poor toad!)

I was also able to assist with preserving a new addition to this collection – a boa constrictor named Aeron. After formaldehyde injections and several fluid changes, we needed to find an extra-large shiny new jar, because he was over a metre long. Aeron has now bagged a starring role as the centrepiece of his display case. I really enjoyed this experience, and it has given me a fantastic insight into the complexities and potential of fluid preservation.

My other major project was the treatment of three snake models destined to be part of a large interactive exhibit within Snakes! Two were painted plaster models of a rattle snake and a king cobra. These incredibly detailed antiques were perhaps cast from real specimens. The third was a moulded rubber and polystyrene grass snake model from the 1960s. The models had survived in remarkably good condition given their age, they just needed a little ‘zhoosh’ to make them display-ready. Light brushing and swabbing with water and mild detergent was all that was needed to remove ingrained dust. Any loose or flaking areas were consolidated to ensure that they didn’t become further detached from the model.

Nevertheless, small elements were missing from each model. The grass snake model posed a specific conservation risk, as rubber and plastics can become unstable over time. Its tongue became fragmented during cleaning and unfortunately proved too badly degraded to reattach. Using photographs of the real-life snake species as a guide, I fashioned replacement tongues for this and the king cobra model from a strong plant-based fibre known as Japanese tissue. They were secured in place and painted to blend them into the jaw area. Being able to see the immediate improvement after each snake ‘facelift’ was very satisfying - this took cosmetic surgery to a whole new level!

Finally, the finished models were settled into their new home for the summer – a large interactive exhibit affectionately dubbed ‘the snake pit’. I’d become so immersed in their treatment over the last five weeks that I was kind of sad to see them go – but it was satisfying to see them looking their best and used in the spirit for which they were originally created.

I’ve really enjoyed working on Snakes! from preparation to completed display – it’s been a fantastic experience. If you are in the vicinity of the museum, pleasssse pay them a visit.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.